The 'Late Style' of Katherine Hepburn

Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn in 'The African Queen' (1951).

The thinker Edward Said was working on a book of essays built around an idea borrowed from Theodor Adorno when he passed away in 2003. Titled ‘Late Style’, and perhaps inflected by Said’s own intimations of mortality, it offers the notion of the creative person arriving not merely at a satisfying maturity, but at “surviving beyond what is acceptable and normal”.  The people he chooses are Beethoven, Jean Genet, Mozart, the pianist Glenn Gould, the poet Cavafy, and the novelist Lampedusa — in their late work he finds evidence not of “mere harmony and resolution, but intransigence, difficulty, and unresolved contradiction”.

For whatever reason, Said’s ideas don’t seem to extend to women in these departments. While that may be a persistent irritation about the book, one could give a dying man benefit of the doubt, and carry on to the question “What is the Late Style that women artists might arrive at?” I’m sure, dear reader, that you can find a dozen interesting answers to this question, but only one name comes flying out of my head each time I ask this question: Katharine Hepburn.

There is the young Hepburn, a sparky, snappy-with-repartee ball of energy who parkours her way through the screwball comedies of the 1930s and leaves her male co-stars seeming somewhat slow. There is the electric onscreen crackle she shared in nine films over 25 years with Spencer Tracy. And then there is the fading of her fortunes orchestrated by Hollywood rumour, and general displeasure with her intelligence, her refusal to settle into cutesy roles, and her striving after creative control.

I’m fascinated by the Hepburn who emerges from being written off thus as box-office poison. This is not a woman receiving favours or kindness but a hard-as-nails bargainer and taker of risks. This is a woman who announces her age like men would flaunt military medals. Someday I shall write of video-vampirism, the strange reversal of the Dracula story by which the ageing viewer may be seized by ageless longings for a dead woman born ten years before their grandmother. For now, I will say only that this Hepburn claims the screen and your head in one swoop.

We begin to see this new Hepburn emerge in ‘The African Queen’ (1951). Her character, Rose Sayer, is a timid spinster slaving away at missionary work in her brother’s shadow somewhere in Africa when World War I arrives. The Germans put their mission station to the sword, and the shock kills her brother. She sets off with Charlie Allnut, a ne’er-do-well smuggler of sorts played by Humphrey Bogart and spends most of the film remaking this man in her own image while they toil through an impossible boat journey in order to take revenge on the Germans. The character she plays is a far cry from the elegant accomplished women she played in youth, but her energies are about the job of uncovering the person beneath the type that the script has room for.

In ‘Pat and Mike’ (1952), one of the later films with Tracy, she is Mrs Pat Pemberton, widow, teacher, and polyathlete whiz at golf, tennis, and shooting who suffers from a rather strange problem. We hear no back-story about who she lost, but in the present she is about to marry the sleek Collier (William Ching) and finds that her sporting skills come unstuck every time he arrives to watch her. She is discombobulated by the male gaze he turns on her, and asks if he sees her as his little woman. His breezy ‘yes’ hastens the sundering of their romance.
Enter Mike Conovan (Tracy), a somewhat shady sports promoter who begins managing her. His diagnosis of her relationship points out that such things need to  be “five-oh five-oh rather than 75-25”. The rest of the film is about how they get to this five-oh five-oh. He sees her talent, and cares for her in a sharp-eyed unsentimental way. She sees soon enough that he sees her as she would like to be seen, as equal, and this allows her to desire him and speak of this desire.

Much before there was ‘Before Sunrise’, or ‘Before Sunset’, there was David Lean’s ‘Summertime’ (1955), in which she plays Jane Hudson, an American spinster who arrives in Venice with a camera and an appetite for life fed by the fact that she has scrimped many years for this trip. The pacing of the film follows the rapture with which her feet and her eyes feed on Venice, and yet she continuously liquefies under the pressures of being independent, single and flaneuse.

The big experience that she has been hoping for arrives eventually in the form of Renato, a man she meets, but this seems to fade out when she finds he is married. His question —why would their getting together be wrong — is one she has no answer to. His analogy for her qualms about married men is the memorable “If you are hungry, you must eat the ravioli that is there, but you want beefsteak”. What she seizes from this ardent wooing is a moment of intense life, and from this, a capacity for self-knowledge rather than doubt.

In each of these films, Hepburn is an improbable survivor, a hoper-after miracles, a seeker of second chances whose first chances we are told nothing of. In each of them, her characters fall through the fractures of their worlds to land on their feet, to find another chance, however short-lived, with men who are not of their world, or their class.

These women do not speak the sassy, faster-than-sound dialect that Hepburn characters once pulled or dodged. Her facial muscles convulse and crease with the words these characters cannot always produce. Hepburn the actor explores through these women the beginnings and the ruptures and interruptions of a feminist consciousness taking form, and locates the viewer not so much within an ideological position as within the back and forth of a conversation.

These are the beginnings of a mysterious something that would continue to be expressed in films such as ‘Suddenly Last Summer’, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’, ‘Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner’, ‘The Lion in Winter’, ‘Love Among The Ruins’, and ‘On Golden Pond’.

This then is Hepburn’s Late Style. In each of these films; she is in, but oddly apart from the present that they address, as Said would have said.

(The writer is a professor of English Literature at the St Joseph’s College of Arts and Science)

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